By Bryan Caplan
1. Discerning desert is doubly difficult:
It’s important to distinguish between two kinds of problem we might
have in making it. The first is a problem in specifying the criteria that are to serve as the basis of the distinction. The second is a problem in determining when some particular individual meets those
criteria. Bryan’s claim that it’s relatively easy to make the
distinction is based on his belief that the first of these problems
isn’t all that serious, but he doesn’t address the second at all. Even
if we agree that someone is deserving if they had bad parents, and
undeserving if they’re lazy, it’s not easy at all to tell which of
these to is the dominant cause of a particular person’s poverty.
It’s true that I didn’t specifically address this. But several of my proposed criteria are even easier to concretely apply than to abstractly specify. We can confidently identify hungry children, the severely handicapped, and victims of war and prohibition when we see them. Figuring out why you’re unemployed is moderately harder. But a few phone calls to former employers and co-workers, with an assurance of anonymity, will normally suffice.
2. Matt isn’t convinced that we should hold government to the same standard as individuals:
One reason we might not care much about false negatives as individuals
is that we believe there is a safety net in place that will catch
anybody we miss. But if government is that safety net, then government needs to be much more cautious than we do.
This sounds both plausible and humane. But it doesn’t hold up. People who live in countries with blatantly missing safety nets still don’t indiscriminately give to beggars. Neither do tourists – even if they’re wealthy social democrats.
3. Matt questions the strength of my presumption against tax-supported charity:
Finally, even if it’s clearly true that there’s a presumption against
the use of force, it seems equally clear that the strength of this
presumption depends on the severity and kind of force that’s being used. As much as libertarians like to say that “taxation is theft,” most of us think (as Tyler Cowen has recently pointed out)
that there is a difference between a burglar breaking into your house
and taking your TV, and the government increasing the marginal tax rate
Taxes are definitely designed to feel less psychologically invasive and unpredictable than random theft. But shouldn’t libertarians deconstruct this difference instead of buying into it? Most conscripts don’t consider themselves slaves. But libertarians wisely insist otherwise.
Read Matt’s whole response. It’s fair and thoughtful. But it also exemplifies the most objectionable feature of “bleeding-heart libertarianism”: Hasty rejection of libertarian premises that even non-libertarians seem to accept.